I don’t like movies that portray senior citizens as cute; that’s a pitfall for any film that depicts older people in a lighthearted vein. Josh Margolin dances around it rather well in Thelma, a film inspired by his real-life grandmother who is now 103. He has had the good fortune to land 93-year-old June Squibb (whom you may remember from Alexander Payne’s Nebraska) to take the leading role in this modest but satisfying movie.

Squibb, like the character she plays, is remarkably self-reliant and approaches the role without a trace of sentimentality. That’s one of Thelma’s major virtues. Margolin set out to make a parody of an action film with elderly people in the leading roles. Squibb’s partner in crime, so to speak, is none other than Richard Roundtree—Shaft himself—in an endearing performance. (He died shortly after completing production on this picture, which is dedicated to his memory.) Parker Posey and Clark Gregg costar as the neurotic parents of man-child Fred Hechinger, who loves his grandma and does his best to protect her. As it turns out, his best is none too good, so she determines to go it alone: she seeks revenge on the unknown scam artist who convinced her to send him cash through the mail. It’s no spoiler to say that the role is filled by Malcolm McDowell, whose name in the opening credits subvert any possibility of surprise.

If it weren’t for casting a bona fide nonagenarian in the title role, Thelma might not work at all. But it doesn’t pander to its audience and treats its characters with dignity and a dash of comic exaggeration. Thelma’s adventure is depicted as a senior version of Tom Cruise’s derring-do in the Mission: Impossible series and the conceit comes off surprisingly well.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024